A Wife of Noble Character by Yvonne Georgina Puig

Hardcover, 320 pages
Expected publication: August 2nd 2016 by Henry Holt & Co.
     I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Henry Holt & Co., via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Boy, was I looking forward to reading this one! With its attractive cover promising intrigue, social commentary and references to Wharton, I was sold like a new car and eagerly clicked ‘Request’ on NetGalley the moment I came across it. But upon reading it, I came away with a mixed bag of emotions toward it that left me a bit dissatisfied. What I liked about Puig’s A Wife of Noble Character was that it didn’t follow the trajectory I thought it would, and that’s always a plus. I had an idea in my head of how it would all play out when I first met all of the characters. And, yes, while this is a self-proclaimed “classic love story,” (a label which basically lets you know how the story will end) the twists and turns that happened to get to that point were often surprising. The biggest plus of A Wife for me, by far, was the last 20% of the read, which pulled this read back from the abyss for me. Without giving anything away, one of the pivotal turning points in the novel did make me respect, if not like, Vivienne a little more.

Vivienne is a character who is considered by all in her sphere to be beautiful. All she has ever been—or accomplished—in life is being “beautiful,” thus her aspirations in life go hand-in-hand with that. She struggles against this internally, but it’s not as deep as it sounds. Really, she’s trying to decide if being a Texas gold-digger is really her calling—though she still hasn’t settled on whether or not she would consider herself to be such. Enter her gentlemen callers, the men in her life who have similar views on her shown in polarizing ways but who end up shaping the way that she views herself and what she wants from her own life.

Now, I must say that in reviewing A Wife of Noble Character, I realized that the problem I had with it was the packaging. It all began and ended, so to speak, with the packaging! Reading it, I wanted it to be more; I wanted it to live up to the lovely wrapping that it was dressed and presented in, but it didn’t—not for me. This wasn’t some poignant and charmingly funny Edith Wharton spin-off—some modernized version that still had some intellectual bite. No, this was pure chick lit, highlighted by the fact that the protagonist, Vivienne, seemed to want sympathy and commiseration for the everyday life hardships that she experienced, as if she were somehow exempt from real-world issues. (Enter borderline shopaholic heroine who frets over whether or not to flat iron her hair.) Annoying, but often true of chick lit, which is why had I known that this was behind door #1, I would’ve run in the other direction for sure. More importantly, I can’t imagine that this won’t be an issue for this novel to some extent in the future. How are readers of chick lit who might really enjoy this read to know that they’ve found their match if it isn’t packaged correctly? And how many readers will be annoyed to no end once they figure out that they’ve been duped by a literarily slanted book flap and cover?

Meanwhile, this one started out in one of the strangest manners I’ve come across in a while. It just dropped the reader in, right in the middle of a college campus quad, not knowing who the characters were or where their motivations lay. I felt like I’d stumbled into the middle of something and had a hard time getting into the swing of things in those first few chapters, because I kept feeling that maybe I’d missed something—that the format of the first chapter had been purposeful and not just awkwardly done. Character entrances like that can work well and make the reader to feel that they’re really in the middle of the action! This just felt like I’d started the read in the middle of chapter 2.

All in all, if you’re looking for glimpses of Edith Wharton, you won’t find her here. That I can promise you (if you’re like me and you think something like Afterward [1910] when you think Wharton). Nevertheless, the writing was energetic and buoyant in its WASPiness—in the same vein as other recent releases The Nest and Eligible. Of course, it exploited every cliché of Texas life you’ve ever heard—trust me, I know, being born and raised in Texas. But clichés are clichés for a reason, so sometimes they work well when re-examined, re-purposed, re-done, re-imagined, but I didn’t see much of that here. If pushed just a tad further it could’ve been satire in some areas, but it fell a little short in that department too. I felt like I knew these characters and understood them, because their motives were simple. But I never felt for them or rooted for them. Really, I was just watching them and their drama play out but never felt a part of it, never felt invested in the outcome.

So, between the light-heartedness of the narrative and the mild feeling of being duped, A Wife grabbed herself 3 stars that would’ve been shaky at best if not for the pivot it took toward the end. 3 stars ***

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Hardcover, 492 pages
Published April 19th 2016 by Random House

Eligible is the witty and modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Here you will find the Bennett sisters in the 21st century, complete with artificial insemination, yoga, and fad workout obsessions among other more raucous taboos. Here you will also find nearly 200 chapters—oh my goodness, those chapters; more on those below—and a page count a bit gratuitous for such a read. HOWEVER, within that excessive page count you will also find, sharply entertaining dialogue that’s convincingly witty and shockingly blunt that will keep you laughing along with the Bennett family throughout.

Eligible and I had a bit of a tug-of-war over my reader feelings for the first few chapters, I’ll admit. The dialogue struck me as funny, yes, even ingenious, but also superficial and surface-deep, if that. Initially, the characters struck me as two-dimensional chalk outlines that just happened to speak with droll absurdity that worked. Ah, but then I got to know the Bennett sisters a little better! If Sittenfeld was aiming for jaunty and clever, she certainly hit the nail on the head and was able to keep it consistent throughout. The writing was anecdotal, sometimes to its detriment and at times to its credit, but highly entertaining most of the time.

I must say that I’d be completely misleading you if I didn’t prepare soon-to-be readers for that chapter formatting, though. Some will love it, because it made the read feel that it was moving along faster—helpful when you’re holding almost 500 pages of what is essentially light-read chick lit in your hand—but for those of you who want to be profoundly engrossed and deeply invested in your characters, you may find this to be a bother. I straddled this line. There were times when I was practically dizzy with all of the vignette-type chapters sprawled out here, several of them less than a page long (that goes for pages on your phone, Kindle, iPad—less than a page anywhere, on any reading medium, really). I felt inundated by 200 flash fictions, which just happened to link together into a full-length story. At times I found it to be slightly annoying; sometimes I loved it because it seemed to make the read feel lightning fast, and sometimes it made me feel disconnected from the characters and their world because there wasn’t enough there in the chapter to pull me in. In the end, I think both sides canceled each other out for me, and it was fine.

Eligible definitely could’ve been cut down though. I don’t believe for a second that the editor didn’t notice those superfluous chapters that led nowhere—anecdotes about the past and random streams of consciousness—which should’ve been yanked out, because that definitely contributed to the relatively high page count and my antsyness toward the end. But aside from that last round of edits that went undone, this was a really funny and entertaining read. In the end, I did end up caring about the characters once I settled in—Darcy was my favorite, by far. Sittenfeld gets extra kudos for the way that this one came full circle. If you’ve ever read Austen’s classic on which this one is based, you basically knew how it would end, but Sittenfeld managed to toss in plenty of surprises along the way. I also liked the way that the title was used as a double entendre throughout this novel. Well done.

All in all, I found Eligible to be a jaunty little read that smacked of WASPy delights. It would make for a brilliant movie, likely better than it read, though I enjoyed it on a whole. The characters had wit and flair that would translate well on the silver screen. And, I would feel remiss if I didn’t mention my appreciation for the way that Sittenfeld handled Mrs. Bennetts’ casual xenophobia, cooly admonishing her as ridiculous, foolish and behind the times with just the right hint of “just the way it is.” That aspect added an extra layer of funny in a way that could have easily fallen flat or warranted an eye roll (like its counterpart The Nest, which I have also reviewed. If you’re a chick-lit lover, or even curious about the retelling of an Austen classic, this one will really work for you. Indeed, if you were a fan of The Nest,Eligible will work for you as well, because this one is definitely its much prettier younger cousin that you’ll be glad you chose instead).

So, keeping in mind that this was light-read material not intended to be the next Harper Lee brainchild, I give this one an easily attained 4 stars. ****

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Hardcover, 368 pages
Published March 22nd 2016 by Ecco

       The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney did absolutely nothing for me. I had high hopes for this one going in—another brilliantly written cover flap did the trick—but my expectations were never met, and by mid-way, I stopped hoping and assuming that they eventually would be. In fact, this one almost didn’t get finished; sheer perseverance pushed me through.

        The Nest is about the Plumb siblings, four middle-agers whose lives are thrown into tumult when the eldest, Leo, gets himself into trouble yet again—drugs, a Porsche and a pretty young thing complete the cliché—and their mother nearly depletes “the nest,” their trust fund, which they are all expecting to inherit soon, to get him out of this bind. His siblings, Jack, Bea, and Melody are outraged and anxiety-filled, worrying about their personal financial situations that have escalated to the point of emergency because they assumed they’d have the nest to bail them out, and now it’s nearly gone. Leo and his siblings struggle to find a way out of the mess he started, and isn’t sure how to remedy, while dealing with the intricacies of their own lives.

The problem with this one is that this novel could’ve been written by anyone. I saw no particularly extraordinary skill, no ambition, no originality, no nothing. Even the endings were all hastily done, formulaic bow ties fit for day-time TV. In short, I was not impressed as a reader. The Nest fell so flat for me that there was nearly an audible splat sound ringing in my ears throughout the entire reading process. The writing was mediocre, at times hitting on pithy narrative prose that occurred so infrequently that I have to believe they were flukes, one-offs.

       “Maybe she would slip Melody some cash, enough for some Botox or a facial or something to brighten her pallor. She was the youngest and somehow the most faded, as if the Plumb DNA had thinned with each conception, strong and robust with Leo and each child after being—a little less.”

That was one of the better lines of this novel (in addition to the 9/11 nationalism sarcasm), but unfortunately it also sums up how I felt about this one—strong and robust packaging and selling of this one only for each chapter to impress me less and less. The characters here were so uninteresting, so unremarkable, that I could hardly keep them straight. They were all either blah, like Melody, or cliché—oh, the clichés here!

I can’t even really discuss the glaring rudimentary stereotypes running rampant in this one. There was the drunken, ice queen of a matriarch who dressed in a sexy robe for her daughter’s 12th birthday (one of the more interesting characters, whom we hardly saw, but the cliché smacked me in the face). Then there was Matilda Rodriguez, the naïve Hispanic girl who “called everyone Mami or Papi” despite their age—cliché, yawn—and Simone, the supposedly cool, urban, street smart black girl (honestly, already the shallow cliché in this novel’s setting) who says, “Tight” a lot. Tight? REALLY? Tight? What decade is this, please? This one was absolutely deserving of the eye-roll, that she would stake her novel on such underdeveloped outlines of overdone stereotypes (and that it would then be praised as great writing really confounded me). Then we shan’t forget the cliché of the gay sibling who wanted lots of random, casual sex in sleazy nightclubs (I literally forgot his name and had to look above to write it here, Jack) who marveled at his luck at dodging AIDS (really?), and the list actually does go on. There were so many clichés thrown into this one that it was like the literary equivalent of Scary Movie. This element in and of itself revealed that Sweeney is as out of touch with the real world as her characters are and that made the read unenjoyable—in fact, a chore. This element wasn’t nearly pushed far enough to be satire; this is really the world she wanted to paint, which would have been fine, possibly even funny, as a satire but nothing more than that.

The Nest also had too many superfluous characters and storylines! (I’m looking at you Robohook man, and the guy from the 9/11 towers). If you want to read about WASPy yacht problems (1st world problems that no one cares about other than the self-absorbed people experiencing them), endless whining about not receiving a large, undeserved amount of money and having to settle for a mere $50,000 each, and storylines that suffered because of the sheer number of them squeezed in here, you’ve come to the right place. I started to give this one 2 stars, because I finished it, but then realized that that was my own accomplishment, not this novel’s. 1 star. *